Stories of talented climbers who stole their mother's washing line and taught themselves how to climb are legendary, but for most of us this road to excellence is fraught with pitfalls and hazards. You will progress faster and more safely with expert companions but finding expert partners is not always easy. Climbing clubs and climbing walls (contact the British Mountaineering Council for a list) are a great place to meet other climbers, but it can be difficult to know when you are receiving the best tuition.
Avoid climbing with those who talk a good route but move like a melted flip flop on rock
Follow the leader
Most club climbers can teach enough rope techniques to keep you safe, but when choosing a partner avoid those that talk about equipment and safety procedures all the time, carry huge amounts of equipment, talk a good route, but move like a melted flip flop on rock. If you want to progress quickly, latch onto those climbers who move most gracefully, even if they cannot teach, you will learn a lot about movement and climbing just by watching them.
Alternatively, you could go on a climbing course at one of the many outdoor centres and climbing walls that have sprung up near every major city, or book a course with an individual mountain guide or instructor. A good course/instructor will aim to short-circuit the learning process according to your level of skill, but even with these proceed with caution. Most climbing courses adequately cover the basic safety skills of belaying, abseiling and rope techniques, but few teach the important skill of movement.
Look for the logos of the British Mountain Guide (BMG), the International Federation of Mountain Guides (IFMGA) logo or the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI) when choosing a course or instructor. Talk to other climbers about courses and ask questions of the instructors to find out what they understand about movement and whether they can teach you to move efficiently.
You will probably start by following more experienced climbers up climbs. The minimum you need is a pair of close-fitting (not overly tight) rock shoes, harness, helmet and belay device. Optional extras include a chalk bag, sling and screw gate karabiner (krab).
Time to begin
Once you have mastered the basics you can try it alone but make sure that you understand the fundamental techniques of tying in, belaying, setting up a belay and placing gear.
A good way to start learning to climb is to bottom rope climbs. With this method the rope runs through a belay at the top of the cliff and back to the bottom where the climber and belayer are situated. The climber ascends the route to the attachment point and is lowered back to the ground. The belay you set up at the top of the cliff should extend well over the edge of the cliff to allow the rope to run smoothly.
Where to climb
For your first time on your own it is a good idea to visit a well-known climbing venue or climbing wall. You can always ask someone what to do if you are unclear. The ideal crag is small (i.e. 25m or less), solid, with easy access and descent, and has good belays on the top. Contact your local climbing club or the BMC to find your nearest beginner's crag.